GCPBA RiverNews 8-21-13 – Blind Kayaker Runs Grand Canyon

GCPBA RiverNews 8-21-13 – Blind Kayaker Runs Grand Canyon

Lonnie Bedwell Completes Epic Whitewater First with Team River Runner

On August 21, 2013, U.S. Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell became the first blind kayaker to solo the Grand Canyon.  Bedwell traveled in the company of Team River Runner, a kayaking organization designed to give active duty servicemembers and veterans an opportunity to find health, healing, and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports.

The 16 day Grand Canyon trip included six kayaks, one paddle raft with five paddlers, and four 18-foot support rafts. Throughout the trip, Bedwell always paddled alone in an eight-foot Wave Sport Habitat plastic kayak. One support kayak would be positioned ahead of Bedwell to call out commands and two more trailed at close distance.  After seeing Bedwell handling his kayak, the Team never insisted he make a walking portage.  The support craft were in the vicinity.

Although Bedwell could not see the Grand Canyon’s physical scenery, he was sensitive to the Colorado River’s surging down through the canyon, often raging like an angry bucking bronco with a thorn in its side. Powerful swirling currents and frothing waterholes toppled his kayak so often during the journey that he was forced to execute more than 30 Eskimo rolls.  Twice more, the river ejected him from his kayak like a cannon shot. Bedwell said, “It was a lot of fun.”

“The first really bad place I came to was mile 17 near House Rock, a stretch of the Colorado where the water swung to the right around big boulders,” said Bedwell. “I was kayaking in pillow waves. They are big, fluffy, muddy waves that are hard to row in because so much air is in the water. My boat flipped. I did an Eskimo roll and then flipped again and had to do another roll. This set the tone for the rest of the trip — it was such an adrenaline rush!

“‘Get ready to be beat up more,’ a Team River Runner told me. ‘Expect to go swimming.’”

Bedwell got another Colorado River trouncing a few days later at mile 98, Crystal Rapids, one of the river’s most notoriously treacherous spots. Rocky formations in the river have been formed at this site by millennia of geological cataclysms, and it is also the spot where the raging river is converged upon from both sides at the same location by two rushing creeks with Crystal Creek pouring into the river from the north and Slate Creek from the south.

“I got flipped upside down in Crystal Rapids,” said Bedwell. “It was like being in a washing machine on steroids. I started feeling cold and running out of air. I managed to do a semi Eskimo roll and got a half a gasp of air before the current took me back under. The river dragged me along upside down for a while until I was able to make an Eskimo roll that set me upright.  I really began appreciating the full power of the river that day.”

Bedwell made it to mile 150 before he got busted out of his kayak for his first swim at a place known as Upset Rapids.

Then on day 13, mile 179, at Lava Falls, Bedwell encountered one of the Grand Canyon’s rockiest and most challenging torrents.  “It was in the afternoon and a storm was coming at us. We wanted to make camp for the night so we kept paddling on with a 30 mph crosswind blowing. The conditions made it difficult to approach the falls at the best angle. A lateral wave flipped me. My boat shot out of the water like a catapult and I was thrown out of my kayak and was under water for 10 to 15 seconds and then had to swim in cold water for three or four minutes.”

At mile 205, Bedwell was imperiled again. “A 12-foot rolling rapid got ahold of my kayak,” he said. “It was so strong that it broke my safety glasses and caused my kayak to make a complete backflip in the river.”

Back home in Indiana, Bedwell now can say, “It’s neat to have been a part of history, but what I accomplished is essentially meaningless if it is not helpful in inspiring other people with disabilities to explore life’s opportunities."


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